Why China for Grad School?

I chose to earn my master’s in applied linguistics here in Shanghai, through a Chinese-language program at East China Normal University (华东师范大学). While I’m certainly not the only foreigner to ever do this, I get a lot of inquiries about it, as more and more non-Chinese focus on China. Although I’ve written a bit about different aspects of grad school in China in the past, I find it difficult to offer a very useful comparison simply because I’ve never attended any graduate courses in my home country of the United States; I’ve only ever done it in China. Still, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on one big question: why would an American choose to do graduate studies in China?

Why not?

The question implies that there are good reasons not to pursue higher education in China. Indeed there are, so I’d like to get them out in the open right away. I obviously can’t cover the issues for every school and every program in China, but these are the big ones I personally encountered:

You have to have the Chinese level for it. Remember, this whole post is about earning a degree all in Chinese, not through an English language program. To be fair, it’s not as hard as you might imagine; most Chinese programs welcome foreigners with the minimum Chinese language skills to handle the curriculum. The entrance test you’ll be given is not the same one the Chinese students must take, and the selection criteria tend to be far more lenient. Still, you’re going to need an HSK score of 6 or better, and you’re going to need to be able to write Chinese (yes, by hand) if you want to get into one of these programs.

Inferior instruction. Ouch. Yes, I said it. In many cases, you’re simply not going to be getting a great education (by international standards) at a Chinese university. Many programs are not up to date on the latest theory in the field. Do your research.

No strong emphasis on originality. When it comes time for term papers, teachers actually stress: don’t download your paper from the internet. Yes, they have to say it.

Much less wilingness to experiment. As a master’s student at ECNU, I was repeatedly discouraged from doing an experiment, urged instead to rehash some grammatical topic from a slightly different angle (keep in mind the field is applied linguistics). I gather from anecdotal evidence that in many fields, the academics most interested in research go abroad (and often don’t come back).

Less academic freedom. Your advisor makes a huge difference. I know of multiple cases where an advisor would not allow his student to pursue her own academic interests because the advisor didn’t know enough about that topic to be helpful (or perhaps the advisor wanted the student to research something else for his own reasons). Students often have no choice of advisors, which can sometimes mean that a student has very limited input on his own thesis topic.

The “extended undergrad” experience. It’s a tough time to be a young Chinese graduate. The job market is not good. As a result, many undergraduates are continuing on to grad school to delay their job search and to try to improve their qualifications for the jobs they do eventually compete for. The result is an overall dilution of the academic passion and initiative you might expect in a graduate program.

Boring teacher-centric teaching model. In my case, in four semesters of courses, only two placed any emphasis on discussion. (Those were my two favorites.) For most classes, the professor simply stood at the front of the class and lectured.

Then why China?

Aside from reduced cost, there is one main reason a westerner might choose to go to grad school in China over a western country: because one’s object of study is inherently Chinese. This includes Chinese history, Chinese art, Chinese language, etc.

A reader once wrote me for advice on graduate level studies, saying:

> I want to do field research on speech patterns of Chinese-Mongolian bilingual speakers in Inner Mongolia, specifically how their exposure to Chinese affects their command and use of Mongolian.

In this case, it appears studying at a Chinese university makes sense, although she shouldn’t rule out the possibility of completing coursework in the States, but going to China for the field research. But she’ll have to dig for programs like that.

In my case, because I intended to stay in China long-term, it made sense to study in China both for career reasons and for Chinese study reasons. This does not mean that I found the master’s degree a “perfect match” however. I was fortunate enough to have a great advisor, but I really struggled to stay motivated when encountering some of the issues above. And although I was in a good location to conduct the experiment I wanted to do, I received little to no guidance in its execution. There were definitely times when I wondered if doing the degree in China was worth it.

By going through it, I did gain a deeper understanding into Chinese academia, even if what I experienced as a foreigner was “Chinese academia lite.” We did take the same courses, have the same professors, and get forced to attend the same student meetings. One question I cannot yet answer, however, is if those insights are worth some of the other aspects of my education which I sacrificed.

As I mentioned above, I can only speak from my own limited experience, but I would love to hear from those of you that can add to the picture.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Andrew Corrigan Says: February 23, 2010 at 8:30 am

    “Boring teacher-centric teaching model.” Maybe it’s because I did grad school in a technical field, but most professors tend to just talk for 3 hours with the same slides they’ve been using for years, with no real teaching or interaction involved, or if they did interact. (I remember being an undergraduate and in non-technical courses the professors usually asked questions).

    “Less academic freedom.” I think that research directions are constrained in the US indirectly via funding issues. Someone has to be paying for your research.

    • Andrew Corrigan Says: February 23, 2010 at 8:33 am

      I mean, “or if they did interact it was at their own pace, not that of the students.”

    • Andrew,

      Now you’ve got me curious how many graduate-level programs are just straight lecture style. I have no idea.

      • I received a PhD in chemistry from University of Washington and all of those courses were straight lecture for 1-1.5 hours per class. In the sciences, the classes are used to learn basic theories and ideas. During the research portion of the degree, it was all about discussion and finding answers.

        My friend who is getting a master’s degree in ESL/EFL says that her classes are all about discussing and doing papers and projects.

        I guess it really depends on which field you are getting a degree in.

  2. Fascinating article, John. I also think it depends what the student’s career goal is. If one wants a career in academia, a degree abroad makes sense. If one’s purpose is intellectual curiosity, forming of guanxi, personal pursuit of learning, preparation for long-term life in China/Chinese marketplace, I definitely think a degree in China makes sense.

    I just wished they’d get ride the of the silly handwriting requirement. My question: how many Chinese in the MA program wrote their course papers in longhand?

    • Tom,

      Totally true! I can certainly follow that reasoning…

      Not sure how soon we’ll stop writing characters by hand. I wouldn’t hold my breath!

      • I am surprised because the hand writing requirement is not at all consistent with the minimum HSK level. Most programs only ask for HSK 6, whereas fluent handwriting would correspond more to a level around HSK 10.

        I would imagine the only reason why the test requires fluent handwriting is because it is designed for Chinese students. Surely there is a way to waive that requirement at least in some programs, especially non-language-related ones?

      • just wondering what fluent handwriting means?? aren’t all hsk tests written by hand, so therefore you would have to be able to have fluent handwriting. especially if you got a score of 6 or higher.

      • No, the mid-level HSK only requires students to write several characters out. It’s much, much easier than having to write answers to essay questions!

  3. Cool topic

    I have investigated a few mainland courses in my time here. Two things that stopped me signing up was course organization, which is generally on par with a drunken orgy. And even more so, international credibility, meaning that if you want to take the degree home and leave the china field, people may not rate a Chinese degree, for obvious and understandable reasons.

    Two things that i would say in favor is that scholarships seem plentiful, at least less competitive than in Australia and secondly it would comprehensively bolster your Chinese in a certain area that would be hard to otherwise achieve.

    • Chris,

      True… with regards to scholarships, I got one after my first year, meaning I only had to pay for one year of tuition.

      I also enjoyed the boost in my Chinese skills, but it didn’t go as far as I initially imagined. Paper writing was mostly all done at the end of the semester, and speaking practice was minimal. So I basically got tons of extra listening practice in my field.

  4. Another interesting post, John. I wanted to mention one of the other options for getting a degree in a Chinese language environment, but not in China.

    I’m currently finishing up my MA work in Chinese at Middlebury College in Vermont. The program includes coursework in pedagogy, linguistics and cultural studies. All courses are taught in Chinese, class discussion is in Chinese, and papers are written in Chinese, with some exceptions due to the tight time-frame: all course-work is completed within six week summer sessions. Reading assignments tend to be a mixture of Chinese and English selections, often due to a lack of similar quality materials being available in Chinese. Instructors are made up of both native and non-native Chinese speakers, and I’ve had very good instructors from both groups (and some not-so-good as well). Even instructors who come directly from China and are used to lecture only style are directed to be more discussion-oriented in our classes. While it isn’t a perfect immersion experience (life off campus continues to be America) it is very good. Most of the MA class are native Chinese and we’re together in classes, dorms and meals. There are also about 150 other students on campus learning Chinese (ranging from beginning to advanced) and also bound by the language pledge. One more plus for the grad program: no hand-writing requirement.

    There is at least one big downside. It is expensive. A second downside is that it is potentially difficult to get into… though I was accepted, so I’m not sure what that means.

    • Sam Goldstein Says: March 8, 2010 at 10:59 am

      I’m a Chinese major at Grinnell College in Iowa, and I’ll be graduating this december. I am thinking about getting a Chinese graduate degree. My advisor got a PhD in Chinese at Michigan, so he knows all about the Phd Chinese programs in the US. He is not as familiar with the MA programs, and I was wondering if you had any insights about the various programs offered in the US, and what kind of program you are enrolled in, as well as any suggestions you might have for selecting a good-fitting program.
      Thank you very much!

  5. Thanks John, I find this very interesting. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Chinese academia during the last year, since I am researching a topic related to Chinese higher ed (精品课程), which has involved not only doing interviews (and navigating the getting-permissions process), but also meeting lot’s of interesting grad students and professors doing related research etc. Also participated in some conferences, trainings etc.

    One thing that I would be very interested in, is learning more about life in China as an academic – I know there are foreigners in China doing post-docs, working as professors and researchers, and the there’s even a foreign dean at Qinghua (the first in China). I’m talking about people actually teaching and researching on their academic topics, not just teaching English. I know there’s a push to hire foreign academics at top universities, there is central funding set aside etc, which will probably just increase. I am sure there are lot’s of frustrations and limitations, but it must also be a very interesting process. Since my wife prefers life in China, it’s absolutely something I will consider, once I finish my PhD (from abroad).

  6. it’s true.
    since your major goal is not getting a degree here, your academic experience in Chinese university from a certain perspective let you know what chinese academia is like.(however, science fields might be better than art ones),further more ,this can partly explain chinese people’s creativity and China’s development.

  7. I wonder at what point they will come up with a system that allows students to write via computer while testing. At this point, aside from academic requirements, is there really any situation that requires being able to hand-write characters in real life (aside from something unimportant like leaving notes on the fridge?)

    I leave it to John to confirm this, as I’m no linguist, but I would guess that cognitively speaking, being able to reproduce characters is a different sort of skill than what’s required to recognize them. Couldn’t the time spent memorizing hand motions be better spent learning to pronounce and recognize new words? In all honesty, that’s the single biggest obstacle between me and grad school in China — my unwillingness to waste time learning a skill that I view as largely irrelevant to what I actually want to study (after all, what serious research paper wouldn’t be typed in this day and age?)

    Not that anyone in China cares too much about what makes the most sense for foreigners, but Chinese people seem to be forgetting how to write things by hand too. I can’t count the number of times I have asked a tutor how to write a new word they said, and they whip out their phones to double check before writing the character down. Maybe I just pick lazy tutors, though, I don’t know…

    • Kevin Nelson Says: July 26, 2014 at 9:05 am

      The mainland China Chinese proficiency (HSK) exam 中国汉版汉语水平考试 can be done on a computer. I took the level three exam on a computer in San Francisco, then without realizig it, I registered for the HSK-4 pencil exam version in Xi’an. I did a whole lot better on the computer one, even though I did pass the pencil one. Now to prepare for the next…

  8. If someone wrote to me and asked me about whether they should attend grad school in China, given that their main goal is to do field research, I would tell them that if they had a reasonably good grounding in basic linguistics, to just go out and start doing the field research.

    You’ve outlined the good and bad in Chinese grad school pretty well. I taught at Jilin University for two years and found that the linguistics master’s students end up getting their degree without any real foundation in linguistics, and their thesis was like you said: a slightly different approach to research that has already been done (not mentioning the fact that this slightly different approach is usually patently useless).

    The professors that I’ve come across (at Jilin University and lesser universities and colleges in the northeast, not schools in better-developed places) are kind of in a sorry state. I once went and talked to the head of the applied linguistics PhD program at a big normal university (it appears that they have since dropped that program) about possibly studying there. He started lecturing me about how much reading I would have to do. This was even after I told him I have a master’s in another field; of course I know how much reading one has to do. I asked him about his research interests, and he said theoretical linguistics, like philosophy of language and pragmatics. I didn’t want to be rude, so I didn’t ask him why he was running an applied linguistics department when he is mainly interested in theoretical linguistics.

    I noticed that there was no computer in his office, and he had only one small, glass-doored bookcase at the far end of the room (away from his desk), filled mostly with the FLTRP/CUP linguistics series that was most likely purchased as a set, just for looks.

    There are serious scholars in Chinese universities, but the fact that someone is a professor in China is no guarantee of that. If one wants to get something out of a degree in China, it’s mostly going to be based on what one puts into it. On the bright side, things seem to be slowly and steadily improving.

  9. Great article! I have been in China for almost two months now and I’m thinking about starting college here next year. However, whenever I read about the Chinese universities I hear about the lousy organization. On the other hand, I checked this list here and as you can see there are a few chinese colleges there including Peking University.

    I’m intending to get a degree in computer science, but I’m getting kind of discouraged. At first, it seems that is way better than in my country, Brazil but the more I read the more I think that colleges here and there have no difference at all except, of course, the language.

    I’d really like to know if a chinese degree is any valuable since I’m planning to continue studying in Europe when I’m done here. If it’s not that valuable I might have to start thinking of an alternative plan.

    Any insight or suggestion would be greatly appreciated.


  10. Great discussion. There is a historical reason for the generally poor quality of instruction — the Cultural Revolution. Any scholar worth his or her salt was humiliated, killed, or driven overseas.

    I’m glad to hear that things are improving, but the Chinese will be paying for that spasm of national madness for the next fifty years.

    With apologies to Joyce, this country is “the old sow that eats her farrow.”

  11. I think the reason why the insisting on you writing long hand is to ensure that you can write and not just read. My speaking is pretty good, read is just okay, but I don’t think I can write more than 100 words. If I were to type, I think I can make it pretty far without having to consult a dictionary. As for Chinese people, they grew up writing the language, my parents barely write Chinese these days, but they still remember most of the words you need to use when you write (I’m in the US). However, I don’t know how much Chinese people will remember how to write these days since every just type.

    I’m an engineering, outside of lab courses most of my engineering classes are the teacher-centric. I’ve taken a couple of graduate Chinese-oriented classes, one on statistical Chinese, the other one is a language course called technical Chinese (or something like that), both of those were more conversational, especially statistical Chinese. But both classes had only about 10 – 15 students in them, I’m not sure if it helps.

    I don’t know if the general poor quality of instruction is pure a result of the cultural revolution. Chinese education has always been fairly one-note, stemming from the Confucius days. Students learn by memorizing and repeating after teachers, little emphasis (or perhaps even discouragement) was placed on novel thinking or even learning beyond what the teachers knew.

  12. As a current student in a Chinese university’s masters program, I can vouch for everything stated above. The one area that it’s not been true is in freedom to choose my topics, though I’ve always suspected my advisor was exceptional. I’ve so far been able to choose my topics and how I want to focus, though this may also be partly due to my field being more theoretical.

    My advice would be that if you’re serious about doing some quirky fringe research on some ultra specific topic, stick to western programs. For me a big part of doing grad school in China was actively looking to get my ass kicked in a new an unusual way. So far it’s working.

    As for writing, it’s not been too much of an issue as far as classes are concerned, but there’s been no shortage of paperwork needing my attention. For that, handwriting is a definite must. Something in which I’m more than a little lacking.

    I don’t regret the decision, but I’m also planning on doing a program in the US once I’m done here.

  13. I’m curious what your thoughts are on the value of a master’s degree from a Chinese school outside of China. Do you get the sense that employers/schools in the US treat it the same way they would treat a domestically earned degree?

    • Nathan,

      Definitely not! It really depends on the field, though. Earning a master’s in applied linguistics in China, and then later going on to teach Chinese in the US would probably work. (I’ve been told as much by professors in the States.) It would likely not be sufficient for a PhD program. I’m just guessing, though.

  14. Agree with all kudos on great post and topic, John.

    Some folks on this thread might be interested in a recent post from Silk Road International. It’s about many things, but touches on education quality:

    First, to graduate from college in Shenzhen, my wife had to write an English thesis—10 pages of original research and analysis. Any topic. Her thesis adviser told her to copy text from the internet on a page that isn’t very popular and that way he “wouldn’t have to read it” since he would know that it was already “correct.”

    Second, when I was teaching at a college in Sichuan (’95) I was asked to review the theses of a number of grad students (20+) that were hoping to go on to foreign schools or better domestic universities for post graduate work. There wasn’t one of them that had done any original work. Not one. They had copied and pasted paragraph after paragraph with minimal original transitional sentences linking them all together—this was obvious to detect since the first and last sentence of every paragraph were the only ones with any grammar problems. When I brought this up to the Dean of the English department, he looked at me with a shocked expression and said something like: Well, of course. Their English isn’t good enough to do all that work on their own. Besides they don’t have time with all their other class work. Mixed quality indeed.

  15. “Boring teacher-centric teaching model. In my case, in four semesters of courses, only two placed any emphasis on discussion. (Those were my two favorites.) For most classes, the professor simply stood at the front of the class and lectured.”

    I took what my prof said was the first undergraduate seminar offered at ECNU when I was there. It was supposed to be about SLA and linguistics (第二语言习得). There was one set text for the course (in English, which the first years couldn’t really handle).

    The ‘discussion’ was the teacher calling a student off the attendance list, then asking her (not many boys in 对外汉语) a question. The students would stand up to respond. After a few minutes of this, the remaining 85 minutes of class was lecture.

    Regardless, ECNU is still considered among the best schools training CSL/CFL teachers in the PRC. (This might explain why so many people turn to ChinesePod)

  16. […] Sinosplice – John lists some of the advantages and disadvantages of studying for a master’s degree in China. […]

  17. Coming from Qinghua University, I am more optimistic than you. I am doing a Master in a non-China related field. I agree that you won’t have the best academic level, the diploma will not be considered much elsewhere, but still, I don’t regret it. (maybe it is because I kind of like the teacher-centric way of teaching ;o) )

    There are a lot of young researchers and teachers coming back to China after studying and working in the States, the UK or elsewhere, and I think they will make a difference.

    When I arrived, there was a teacher to ask foreign students what we wanted to do and find a teacher on this area, so that the thesis subject can correspond to our expectations. My advisor is one of these young teachers coming from abroad, speaking a good English and knowing how it works in other countries.

    I do think it will improve, but right now, there is still a large part of luck to find a good advisor, a good lab and good classes. The level of the university will also play a role I guess. In Qinghua, I don’t have as many horror stories as you or a friend I know in Xian. However it is true that the brightest and most motivated students go abroad. China just have to hope they come back …

  18. I took Jon’s opinions on board and went off to do a 4 year degree in Chinese.

    I dont like Jon anymore 🙁

    Only joking – ill probably go back to grad school in 2011.

  19. baby blue Says: March 8, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    After one semester in my master’s program I’ve seen very little of substance being taught or learned. Lots of skimming over and summarizing rather than reading carefully and discussing. And the lack of organization is shocking, even for someone who’s been in China for a while. Everything, from the academic calendar to lesson planning and distribution of teaching materials, seems to be very seat of the pants. Nevertheless, it’s been an invaluable peek into the Chinese educational system and my Chinese writing has improved significantly due to effort I put into my term papers. Another big plus of grad school in China is the cost. Tuition is low and I can make a decent salary working part time and still have plenty of time to spend on school work, which is very difficult to pull off in the US.

    • Wow, all that sounds very familiar…

      • baby blue Says: March 9, 2010 at 9:04 pm

        I don’t want to make it seem all bad: this semester is looking better, in at least one of the classes we will be reading original texts and discussing them. A couple of the professors asked for my opinions and suggestions at the end of last semester and seemed to be genuinely interested in making their classes better or at least more Western. One of them even handed out a syllabus this semester! Some of the professors are definitely super bright and engaging to boot. So there is potential. It’s more the lack of organization and planning that drags things down. That and the attitude of many of my classmates, which is much like what you described.

  20. Thanks for the article John, I found it super helpful. I also have been in China over ten years (grew up here, parents were ex-pats). I’m thinking to do my undergrad here but still have some misgivings. My Chinese characters are at a minimum although my speaking and reading are HSK 8. And I’m also worried about the quality of education. I’ve heard that Beida is pretty much the only university here with a decent Bachelor of Arts program. I want to major in anthropology. My second choice is Renmin University. Any thoughts, ideas? Also, does anyone know about Hong Kong universities and if they do distance learning?
    Also John, you said you got a scholarship after having done the first year of your degree program. Which scholarship was that?
    Thanks so much for any and all help! 😀

  21. Lee Hofweber Says: October 28, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Thanks, John! I’m looking to study in China someday, but I still need to take that darn HSK!

  22. Just wanted to get some opinions from you guys this September I will be starting an english masters degree in international relations at Wuhan University. It is ranked among the top five universities in China. I basically want to know weather the degree will be worth it, at the same time I will be taking Chinese language courses. Do u think such an education could land me a decent job back home in the states especially in the Foreighn service or state department or perhaps in the UN .

  23. Kevin Nelson Says: July 26, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Noticed this thread on graduate education in China. If you posted on this in the past, please feel free to update your impressions.

    I‘m about to go there to China to teach various subjects. One thing I have been told is to expect a very low level with the students there, relative to American universities.

  24. […] a post entitled Why China for Grad School?, I interviewed Zachary Franklin about his half-English, half-Chinese economics master’s […]

  25. […] a recent post entitled Why China for Grad School? I […]

Leave a Reply